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Road to Mideast Progress Runs Through Cairo

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By Abdelmonem Said
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

President Obama's second meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, scheduled to take place today, presents an opportunity to view this important bilateral relationship from a proper perspective. For too long, U.S.-Egyptian relations have focused, somewhat myopically, on only two things: the state of Egypt's peace with Israel and its progress toward democratization.

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Both issues are critical to the Middle East, and for years I have written about the imperatives for a deeper peace and have been critical of the slow pace and the procrastination of Egypt's democratization process. But the two presidents must also focus on the newest threat to the region -- the ubiquity of fragile states that are crumbling under the pressures of demography, resource scarcity and internal strife.

Western analysts understandably have an instinctual suspicion of the all-encompassing power of the "typical" Middle Eastern state. But this view is outdated. The fracturing of state structures has become widespread. Start with the biggest worry -- Pakistan. Its recent efforts to militarily reassert lost state authority over swaths of national territory that had careened out of control have been the subject of discussion, and headlines, around the world. Trouble does not end there. In Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, the cohesion of the state is under assault.

These countries are buckling under the weight of shriveling institutional authority. Laws are not enforced. Economies cannot be regulated. Jobs are not created. Parts of national territory are ceded to non-state actors. Health care, education and basic services don't get delivered. In this context, Egypt stands out. Not only because Egypt is the epicenter of the Arab world; the largest, oldest and most populous Arab country; the first Arab nation to have made peace with Israel; and America's closest ally in the region. Rather, Egypt is increasingly an exception because it is one of the few Middle Eastern countries with strong, evolving institutions able to advance domestic development even while the nation remains the key player for strategic action regionally.

This reality is reflected on two fronts.

First, the Egyptian state has remained stable while accommodating change. The changes are far from sufficient, but society's transformation is indisputable. The monolithic one-party state of a quarter-century is gone. Direct, multicandidate presidential elections have replaced previous presidential referendums. More than 500 newspapers, journals and magazines are published in the country, and Egyptians have access to some 400 Arabic-speaking free-to-air satellite TV channels that compete for news and critical views.

Egypt's reform effort has been especially significant on economic issues. The country was named the top regional reformer in 2009, for the third year in a row, by the World Bank publication Doing Business. Investments have increased significantly, bringing down unemployment from 11.8 percent in 2005 to 8.6 percent last year. Since 2005, the growth rate of Egypt's gross domestic product has outpaced some of the newly industrialized Asian economies. Egypt appears certain to sustain its position as one of the world's rising economies well into the future.

Second, the Egyptian state has kept the peace in a region where everything and everyone seem to push toward war. Its 1979 peace with Israel has held firm and expanded to Jordan, often against difficult odds.

While peace brought criticism from many Arab quarters, Egypt remains the only Arab country all parties look to for strategic consensus and rational thinking. With the region divided among numerous fault lines, Egypt still convenes all groups to dialogue -- the Palestinian factions, Israelis, Sudanese and Iraqis. These parties rarely agree, but all want Egyptian fingers plugging the region's violent dikes. Over decades, Egypt has consolidated its role as the indisputable arbiter of peace.

This only highlights Egypt's centrality as the United States prepares to face the strategic challenges of forging a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement, halting Iran's nuclear program and ensuring Iraq's stability after the U.S. military withdrawal.

Beyond those, the United States and Egypt must contend with the looming prospect of regional state fragmentation.

The Middle East must have a way to deal with the chaos of failed states. Together, the United States and Egypt should seek out a coalition of like-minded regional and international actors to design new mechanisms targeted toward averting collapse in failing nations. Solutions might sometimes be political, and other times they might require financial or managerial intervention. Washington and Cairo must recognize that staving off further state deterioration in the Middle East will require new international and regional solutions and creative statecraft. In this endeavor, Egypt is an ally and an example.

Abdelmonem Said is chairman of the Al-Ahram Establishment in Cairo and a senior fellow at Brandeis University's Crown Center for Middle East Studies.


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